Ohio State Director of Athletics Gene Smith needs to erase the word “systemic” from his vocabulary.
When it slips from his mouth in denial after denial, it has become a joke, a code word for Ohio State’s ignorance or its leaders’ desperation. Smith is trying to save his job and help the football program avoid the dreaded NCAA findings of failure to monitor or a lack of institutional control.
But he’s not helping.
Smith sounds more like he’s burying his head in the sand every time he speaks. This time it was last Monday, when he addressed the suspension of three players for receiving improper benefits from Cleveland-area booster Robert “Bobby” DiGeronimo. DeVier Posey, Dan Herron and Marcus Hall were forced to sit out the game Saturday night at Nebraska for receiving what Smith called “excessive compensation” from their summer jobs at DiGeronimo’s Independence Excavating, where OSU players have been working for years. Posey’s suspension was increased by four more games last Friday.
“These failures are individual failures; failures of individual athletes, as you know, unfortunately, a previous coach, and a booster,” Smith said, according to a video on the university’s athletic website (preceded by an Outback Steakhouse advertisement). “So it’s not a systemic failure of compliance. So I’m optimistic and I’m confident that we will not have those charges.” Smith was referring to possible penalties like the loss of scholarships or a bowl-game ban.
Since the money for tattoos and memorabilia scandal cost football coach Jim Tressel his job on Memorial Day and since OSU met with the NCAA committee on infractions Aug. 12, more violations have come to light. Three players, Jordan Hall, Corey Brown and Travis Howard, were suspended two games for receiving $200 for attending a charity event that DiGeronimo was associated with. Then came the job overpayment, which involved five players, one out with a medical hardship and another, Etienne Sabino, already reinstated.
But Smith is not like everyone else who is watching the OSU scandal. He’s not putting all these incidents in a pile and smelling manure.
“I’m confident in our compliance program,” he said Monday. “We don’t have a systemic problem. I know most people don’t understand that.”
But how many boosters does it take to cross the border into systemic? Since Tressel became coach in 2001, there have been Bobby Dellimuti (Maurice Clarett), Robert Q. Baker (Troy Smith), Ted Sarniak (Terrelle Pryor), Dennis Talbott (Pryor and Posey) and DiGeronimo. And those are just the names we know. Presumably the compliance office has a much larger file on individuals the program has disassociated with.
Smith spoke last Monday about collaborating with the NCAA to make sure Ohio State has the right system, working with the student-athletes, and “educating people around them to make sure the student-athletes are not being taken advantage of.”
That comment seemed to portray OSU athletes as victims, not violators. It did not sound like Smith wants to try to eradicate the culture of entitlement that surrounds Ohio State athletics, especially football, for fear of alienating some of the university’s biggest contributors.
Whether he acknowledges it or not, the Buckeyes’ systemic problem extends to those running businesses in Columbus and throughout Ohio. Many want to help a football player, it’s the only way they can feel a part of the program. Not only must OSU educate its athletes about the NCAA’s rights and wrongs, it must educate the community as well.
Smith said Ohio State has 1,090 athletes, 200 new ones every year. That seemed to suggest that the compliance staff can’t possibly watch all 1,090 and make sure someone is not pressing a $50 bill into their palm for gas money. That nearly went down the slippery slope of failure to monitor.
As the violations mount, it seems hard to believe that Smith will survive. He received a vote of confidence from OSU President E. Gordon Gee last Tuesday night, but everyone knows how much Gee’s unconditional support helped Tressel.
“I think we are blessed to have an extraordinarily talented athletic director who has proven his mettle through an extraordinarily tough time,” Gee said after his annual fall address to the faculty, according to the Columbus Dispatch.
It seems inevitable that Smith would be shellshocked as the hits just keep on coming. During the controversy surrounding Clarett’s NCAA suspension for the 2003 season, former OSU Director of Athletics Andy Geiger once met a few members of the media wearing mismatched shoes.
Now it is Smith who squirms as Ohio State waits for the other shoe to drop — the NCAA announcement of sanctions, expected this month but now delayed by the overpayment violations.
No one expects Smith to sit and watch meekly as Ohio State’s athletic integrity takes a pounding. But his “systemic” defense is sounding weaker by the day. If university officials get a hint that the NCAA is not buying it, Tressel could soon have company in scapegoat purgatory.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at . Read her blog at . Follow her on Twitter at . Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at .